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While the bane of the public school system is funding, or the lack thereof, community and location also play crucial - if intangible - roles in the education of all children. For minority children, many of these factors can often be beyond their control: environmental factors such as their neighborhood, how many parents they have, and their financial situation. As an early childhood educator based in Miami, Florida - which has the dubious distinction of being among the top ten poorest cities in the United States - my daily routine includes social aspects that were not what most teachers expect when in the teaching environment. One of the first social aspects of my impact is in the expectations and the flexibility I need to achieve in the classroom.
In this state, pre-kindergarten is couched as a voluntary option, while the system almost ensures that if the child does not attend the year, they will most likely fail kindergarten miserably (in addition to not learning a thing). As an educator in charge of one of these pre-kindergarten classrooms, I have many observations about the efficacy of our public school system and how it impacts the minorities I deal with on a daily basis. Community is definitely one of the most influential factors in the very beginning. Having taught in many pre-kindergarten settings, from affluent middle class to minority only settings, one must observe and use large quantities of social justice and patience or problem solving. Miami being such a melting pot for civilization creates educational environments that are challenging for the adults in charge, and more so for the young minds involved as well. The minority community in which I currently teach is so apathetic that I wonder often how many of my students will be able to even reach high school, given the indicators I see daily. Many of the children come from communities that are so impoverished that daily attendance is the only way to ensure that the child eats two and a half meals a day. Parents lack involvement in their child's activities, regardless of time or convenience. Often, the attitude is that they have accomplished the necessary by getting the child there every day and no more.
While many studies prove the importance of an early childhood education (both at the preschool and pre-kindergarten level), there is even more supporting evidence for the importance of the role of even one supporting parent or adult figure. Children are inherent emulators. Robert Fulghum, an American author, says it best, stating, "Don't worry that children never listen to you. Worry that they are always watching you." Unfortunately, the statistics show overwhelming evidence to the importance of what I encounter daily. The U.S. Census Bureau has just released the 2010 brief on children of single parents, and the numbers show that generally, children living at home with both parents have significant financial and educational advantages than children raised by one parent. Even among single parent households, the opportunities afforded to children were greater when the parent was divorced instead of just a single parent, and more so if there was less financial strain. (O'Conell, 1997) The Census brief goes on to state that divorced households had more educational background than never-married households, and their children followed similar trends as well. If the financial level is not there for most of these parents, even though they may have an interest in their child's education they cannot afford to pay for tutoring or an after-school program that can provide positive educational experiences for their children. However, income is not a guarantee of success. There is also evidence of academic disparities between minority and majority students within similar family income levels. The 1998 early childhood longitudinal study revealed performance gaps in several math areas between minority and majority kindergarteners in the highest quintile. (Miller, 2004) Particularly, African American and Hispanic children lagged behind Asian and White children in understanding ordinal sequence and performing addition and subtraction. Wyner and colleagues (2007) reported that during high school, lower-income, high achieving Asian students were more likely to stay in the top quartile of performance in math, whereas lower-income African American students were less likely to climb into the high achievement level in math and reading. The effects of race versus income on academic performance are too complicated to disentangle, but clearly both factors affect achievement, and many individual students are affected by both. (Lee, Spring 2009)
Furthermore, this is only the beginning. By the time most minority students reach a secondary - high school - education, there are other factors that affect them as well. Due to the location of their schools, the lack of community support and funding, and general public and familial apathy, their educational opportunities are severely limited and possibly even discouraged. In the South Florida region I encounter many migrant families, and while their children are American citizens, many of them try to graduate high school and find a job to help support their family structure, rather than focus on a higher education that is financially impossible for many of their parents. By the same token, there is an increasing awareness among the Latin community that education is the door to their future, and many Hispanic parents are among the first to encourage their offspring to do better for themselves than the best they did. In 2008, the national average SAT scores stayed the same, while the number of Hispanics and minorities who took the test rose dramatically. More than a third of the students taking the test also indicated that their parent's educational level was high school or less. (Straehley, 2009)
There are international human rights laws in place already that do protect the right of children of all races to have an education, but having free, compulsory and all-encompassing education available to all is still not accomplished in the United States, much less in other countries around the world. However, just because this legislation is in place, it still doesn't account for the factors discussed previously and other factors as well. Here in America children may be excluded from schooling because they are refugees, don't have identity papers, or are immigrants. In other countries, children that are non-citizens have no legal right to education. (Human RIghts Education Associates, 2008) All this proves that it is more than just financial issues that can create roadblocks for children here and in other countries to attend school.
It is also difficult for educators. While my position as an early childhood educator has a direct impact on the child's elementary experience, teachers in the secondary schools are becoming increasingly burned out and having to face challenges that fall more under the scope of social work than education. In Miami-Dade county school shootings and violence has been at an all-time high over this past year (2009), and there are many other issues with the local educational system. While not every educational system is the same, the issues happening locally here are being reflected across the country. A colleague employed by the Miami-Dade County School Board at South Ridge Senior High had many insights for me when discussing this subject. Mr. Padron teaches American Government, and has been a full-time teacher for the past three years. In these three years he has seen many co-workers be asked to take early retirement, to take other classes out of specialty so they can continue being employed, and to do other supplemental work in order to make ends meet. His starting salary, below the national average, was a mere $36,000 spread out over a 10-month period. If he agreed to coach a varsity sports teach an additional $5000 supplement would be added. Padron observes that a typical day has so many administrative demands - due to lack of paraprofessional staffing - and so many other extraneous activities that have to be handled by the teacher, that an 8-hour workday stretches to 12 in order to grade papers, prepare lessons, and try to complete some actual teaching in the classroom, while juggling everything else that his students bring to the room every day. His high school is located in a lower income neighborhood, and Padron observes that one can see a significant drop in his junior and senior level Honors and AP class enrollment, mostly because the minorities that the school primarily services do not have time to dedicate to higher level classes. Instead, they try to work and star in a popular sport like football or basketball to try to win a meal ticket out of town via a college athletic scholarship or a professional draft pick. A foundering local economy and rapidly rising cost of living not only affects him personally, but his students and their families as well. Padron states that often, survival means worrying about the bills and the rent, not if high school graduation will happen or not. (Padron, 2010)
Then there is the debate between a public education and a private education. When this country was first founded, schools were either funded by religious groups or privately. A national public school system slowly developed, but it was not until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that great strides were taken to make a general education available to all students. This legislation is what provides the funding for privileges such as free textbooks in public schools, and funding for enrichment programs like music and art. The Education Consolidation and Improvement Act in 1981 also helped to add more funding and more resources at the state and local level from the federal government. (Pulliam, 2007) However, given the increasingly challenging educational landscape this legislation only served as a drop in the bucket. Private schools were in full force, and the general public still had a concept that the better education was what could be bought. Obviously, for many minorities, private school was a financial impossibility that until recently has not been addressed by the system. Since statistically students that have a choice regarding their schooling do perform better and complete more education, the State of Florida initiated several scholarships and voucher programs to help level the playing field for low-income families. In Miami-Dade County the PRIDE scholarship and Step Up for Students are two voucher options for students wishing to attend private school. Disabled students now have the McKay Scholarship to assist with special needs and gifted education at the private level as well. (Florida, 2005)
Finally, the most recent piece of legislation - with a goal of reaching all minorities - is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This legislation is multipronged with repercussions that provide incentive for the improvement of the system. This act holds states and counties accountable for their schools' performances, addresses the achievement gap, helps provide funding, and maps the expected results. (Gov't, 2005) While far from a perfect piece of legislation, it is a step in the right direction for all the minorities and children of all races to have a more equal playing field and a stronger voice regarding their educational future.
While there are still many more strides to be made with legislation, community awareness and family responsibility for minority education, there is hope for the future. There will always be an ongoing battle to fund the future of America, because education is priceless and the costs are many in order to provide this privilege to all the children in the nation. Legislation still could do much more to create a better work environment for teachers so that they can focus on teaching and not social work or administrating. Community leaders can be more involved in raising community awareness for the education of all the children. An old African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child." The truth and the value are in the vision and the knowledge that the villagers have that they are willing to impart to the children. The children, regardless of race or origin, are the future of the country, and the increasing challenges faced by the minorities in this educational system need to be handled to avoid letting the next Albert Einstein slip through the cracks in the system, simply because they couldn't afford it or lived in the wrong apartment block.